GREYTOWN—In the outermost reaches of the Nicaragua’s southern jungle frontier, on an alluvial headland overlooking the mouth of the mesmerizing Río San Juan, an international group of ecotourism pioneers is endeavoring to build a wildlife refuge that will be Nicaragua’s answer to Jurassic Park.
The proposed 100-acre animal refuge will be enclosed within a tall perimeter fence with catwalks leading to tree-top viewing platforms where tourists can sip on a Flor de Caña while witnessing the jaguars’ feeding hour on the jungle floor below.
With an estimated construction cost of $300,000, the private animal reserve will be built in the fecund rainforest of Greytown’s Río Indio Lodge.
Once completed by the end of 2013, the animal refuge will be home to a variety of wild cats—cougars, jaguars, ocelots and margay—as well as separate areas for tapirs, white-faced peccaries, deer, foxes and other wildlife rescued by Nicaraguan environmental authorities from the filthy clutches of rapacious poachers and animal traffickers. The tribes of monkeys that move through the trees with loud confidence will continue to come and go as they please along the branches spanning the fence line.
“The monkeys and other animals that live here—this is their environment, their home; we are the ones who are intruding, and that’s the way we feel about it here,” says Dr. Alfredo López, president and CEO of Río Indio Lodge.
López says the future wildlife rescue center will provide the necessary conditions for rescued animals to live safely and comfortably in their natural habitat, free from the threat of poachers. The giant felines will feed on poultry from the lodge’s chicken farm, snack on fish from the river and—one can only hope—nibble on the rumps of would-be cat smugglers who attempt to sneak into the reserve with devious intentions. The rescued animals will be cared for by volunteer veterinarians who are given lodging at Río Indio Lodge in exchange for their services, according to López.
“The problem Nicaraguan environmental authorities have right now is that they don’t have anywhere to put rescued or injured animals (other than the National Zoo in Managua),” López says. “The wildlife refuge will provide them with a natural rescue center for cats and other endangered animals that wouldn’t last long on their own if they were just released back into the jungle.”
The rescue center will not operate like a zoo, and public access will be restricted, López says. Some tours will be offered—such the jaguars’ cocktail-hour feeding frenzy—to help raise funds to pay for the animals’ care and feed, but the refuge will primarily serve the needs of the country and the curiosity of science.
Río Indio Lodge has already initiated conversations with the U.S. Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation to offer its facilities and surrounding wilds as part of a new tropical research center. The field center would be complete with 62-foot houseboat called “The Rain Goddess” that would allow students to conduct overnight research trips up the Indian River, in the heart of the Nicaraguan jungle.
“The place has a lot of potential,” Dr. Alonso Aguirre, executive director of the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation, told The Nicaragua Dispatch in an email. “We are trying to figure out how to teach some courses there.”
Aguirre says the discussions are still in the early phase, but his institution wants “to explore the potential” of using the lodge and the surrounding jungle as a field site for students.
The land of the lost
The wildlife center and jungle research station are just part of the exciting new plans for expansion on Nicaragua’s least-explored corner of the map. More than 150 years after U.S. shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt petulantly pulled up anchor and steamed away from Nicaragua, Greytown is finally being rediscovered.
Thanks to the recent completion of the long-awaited Greytown Airport, this 19th century boomtown-gone-bust can finally start to think about growing again—something only the plants have been doing here for the past century.
“We came 10 years before the airport and 10 years after the war, and now we are finally starting to expand,” says López of the $7 million ecolodge.
Río Indio Lodge, which has 27 double rooms tucked into the jungle off a network of elevated catwalks, plans to double its room capacity in the coming years, making new room for human tourists as well as its foster felines.
As one of the first projects to invest here under Law 306, the Tourism Incentives Law, Rio Indio is like nothing else in Nicaragua and Greytown is like nothing else in Central America.
The ghost town has the feeling of a mysterious land that time forgot. Evidence of the area’s alluring past can be found hidden throughout the jungle, from the colonial gravestones and the 19th century railroad tracks leading to nowhere, to the various sunken barges and Vanderbilt’s old river-dredge tower that still sticks out of the lagoon like rusted dinosaur for ancient history.
Further into the jungle, an indigenous witchdoctor heals visitors with jungle plants, and further still lie the forgotten ruins of a former indigenous civilization known to very few outsiders.
Paradise with luxury
The trailhead to Nicaragua’s wildest jungle adventure begins at Rio Indio Lodge, the only fishing lodge of its kind in the country.
“This paradise with a little bit of luxury,” López says, leaning back in his iron porch chair to wave at a family of fisherman paddling by silently in a dugout canoe.
Around the hotel’s elevated veranda, the jungle plants and flowers drip with raindrops. Parrots scream from nearby tree branches and howler monkeys bark in the distance. A curious white-faced monkey pokes his head down from the tree branch, sees us sitting on the porch, and jumps away to look for a better place to drop down and make a dash for the bananas hung near the kitchen door.
“We are trying to give guests the sensation of comfort in the jungle, without destroying the environment,” López explains. “We do orchid tours, we do night tours to show kids the wildlife, we offer nature hikes on our trails, trips to the old graveyard and into town, excursions to the dolphin lagoon, and fishing trips; we are a family oriented operation with a wow factor.”
Even tourists who decided not to venture outside the lodge will still get to experience nature up close and personal. “Cosito,” the resident tapir that was rescued from machete-wielding poachers, toddled into the lodge during a recent visit and caused about as much trouble as one might expect a tapir to cause in a restaurant, munching on the edge of the tablecloth and knocking things over as he ran about and was chased by hotel staff trying to calm him down with carrots. Several hours later, a troop of monkeys broke into the restaurant and jumped along the rafters after prying a hole in the screen window near the roofline.
At sunset, another regular guest visits the hotel with his toothy smile. Juancho, a 19-foot, 100-year-old crocodile, glides silently up to the dock every evening in search of kitchen scraps or tourist toes.
Even the hotel’s rainwater pool overlooking the Río San Juan is occasionally visited by wildlife other than tourists from Managua. “Sometimes we have to chase crocodiles out of the pool in the morning; the tourists love that,” López says.
With the construction of Río Indio’s new wildlife refuge coming in 2013, the designated areas for people and animals will be slightly better defined starting next year. But line between civilization and jungle is always blurred at Rio Indio Lodge, and that’s what makes it so fetching.
A night at Rio Indio Lodge is $125 per person, including three giant home-cooked meals, free rum and unlimited coffee. For more information on the hotel and their fishing packages, visit their webpage.